Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane

Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane

Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane

Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane


In Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane, J. E. Smyth dramatically departs from the traditional understanding of the relationship between film and history. By looking at production records, scripts, and contemporary reviews, Smyth argues that certain classical Hollywood filmmakers were actively engaged in a self-conscious and often critical filmic writing of national history. Her volume is a major reassessment of American historiography and cinematic historians from the advent of sound to the beginning of wartime film production in 1942. Focusing on key films such as Cimarron(1931),The Public Enemy(1931),Scarface(1932),Ramona(1936),A Star Is Born(1937),Jezebel(1938),Young Mr. Lincoln(1939),Gone with the Wind(1939),Stagecoach(1939), and Citizen Kane(1941), Smyth explores historical cinema's connections to popular and academic historigraphy, historical fiction, and journalism, providing a rich context for the industry's commitment to American history. Rather than emphasizing the divide between American historical cinema and historical writing, Smyth explores the continuities between Hollywood films and history written during the first four decades of the twentieth century, from Carl Becker's famous "Everyman His Own Historian" to Howard Hughes's Scarfaceto Margaret Mitchell and David O. Selznick's Gone with the Wind. Hollywood's popular and often controversial cycle of historical films from 1931 to 1942 confronted issues as diverse as frontier racism and women's experiences in the nineteenth-century South, the decline of American society following the First World War, the rise of Al Capone, and the tragic history of Hollywood's silent era. Looking at rarely discussed archival material, Smyth focuses on classical Hollywood filmmakers' adaptation and scripting of traditional historical discourse and their critical revision of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American history. Reconstructing American Historical Cinemauncovers Hollywood's diverse and conflicted attitudes toward American history. This text is a fundamental challenge the prevailing scholarship in film, history, and cultural studies.


We believe that we have as much right to present the facts of history as we
see them… as a Guizot, a Bancroft, a Ferrari, or a Woodrow Wilson has
to write these facts in his history.

—D. W. Griffith, The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, 1916

When D. W. Griffith published his defense of historical filmmaking in 1916, there was little doubt why he believed that filmmaker-historians needed a spokesman. Public controversy had yet to subside over his Civil War and Reconstruction epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). Although Griffith had already filmed eleven southern period pictures, including The Honor of His Family (1909), His Trust (1910), and The Battle (1911), he had never before made such lengthy, complex, and controversial use of American history. Griffith’s decision to venture into major American historical filmmaking was undoubtedly prompted by the success of Thomas Ince’s The Battle of Gettysburg (1913), released on the fiftieth anniversary of that engagement. However, Griffith not only scripted the heroic sacrifices of Confederate and Federal soldiers and the national reconciliation of Abraham Lincoln’s leadership; he also pursued American history into the postwar era. the second half of The Birth of a Nation was an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s Reconstruction novel The Clansman (1905).

Griffith’s choice to film one of the most racially transfiguring and socially contested periods in national history from what many of his contemporaries considered a blatantly racist, white southern perspective out-

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